In the time since the United States was founded in the 18th century, Russia has been invaded by Europeans six times. In 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Moscow but badly misjudged the will of the Russian people to resist. The cause of the Crimean War in 1856 still baffles us today, but Britain and France won after laying siege to the Russian port at Sevastopol. Germany invaded during the First World War, followed by Britain and France again in 1918, thinking they could strangle Russia’s Communist Revolution before it could walk. That episode was not really a war, but with some 70 thousand foreign troops on Russian soil (of which 11 thousand were American), it can be counted as an invasion. Germany invaded again in 1941, and cut a swath of destruction as long as the distance between New York and Kansas.
On two occasions during this time, Russia joined the West to defeat an aspiring hegemon. The France of Napoleon Bonaparte and Hitler’s Germany both made bids to dominate Europe, and both were stopped by opposing coalitions, in which Russia played a decisive role. If Russia played the role of “liberator” in those conflicts, that is not the Russia Western elites see today. They see a Russia starting a war in Ukraine as the first step in reconstructing the old Soviet bloc, a Russia that has reverted to form and is out to subjugate its smaller neighbors and to bully them into a security zone of vassal states. Such fears are widespread in the West and are the source of its support for Ukraine. However, seen another way, they are a text book example of something called “the security dilemma,” a situation in which one party’s defensive moves are seen by another as aggressive and threatening. Western elites fear Russia’s intentions in Ukraine, while Russia says its “special military operation” there is defensive; at the same time, Westerners insist that the NATO alliance is defensive in nature and that Russia had no real cause for fear if Ukraine joined it. The trouble is, Russia fears it. The sword of suspicion cuts both ways.
In 2022 Russia went to war in Ukraine for reasons its leaders have said it did: to block the expansion of NATO into Ukraine and to remove a potential military threat there that Moscow found unacceptable. The various events leading up to that war are complex and there is not space here to summarize them, but in general Russia-friendly pundits hold that there is sufficient material in the gathering storm to justify a preventive war of self-defense. The critics will have none of this. They say Russia launched an “unprovoked” war of aggression, it has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty, and it must be held to account.
The two camps differ not only on the cause of war, they have completely different world views as to how a system of sovereign states works. Russian war policy is the epitome of a broader realist approach to international affairs: states have interests, not friends, and they must rely on self-help to do what is necessary to protect themselves. Accordingly, Russia went to war not to conquer, but from a no-nonsense threat assessment. By contrast, the United States entered the fray with an ideologically charged missionary spirit. The U.S. has long seen itself as the savior of the world, the “indispensable nation,” Its diplomatic discourse often lapses into moralizing rhetoric. It believes that a world filled with more democracies would be a safer and better place than it is today. It is disdainful of traditional balance of power politics and favors a “rules based” world order. The Russian view of power politics is “bottom up” and conservative. It insists that a state’s historical and geographic circumstances must be taken into account. It grapples with the question, “What is there?” The American view of the world is “top-down” and revolutionary. It is less concerned with historical contexts than with hypothetical theorizing about how people and states ought to behave. It grapples with the question, “What should be there?”
It has often been said that the United States could have defused the Ukraine crisis before it spilled into war by coming to terms with Russia on the status of Ukraine’s NATO membership. However, a psychological barrier blocked the way. The West fears that meeting the Russian “ask” on Ukraine would have been the first step on a slippery slope. Russia would have then made other security demands elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and pretty soon the U.S. would have, willingly or not, become a party to a “sphere of influence” arrangement. Such an outcome is abhorrent to the United States.
“The days of empire and spheres of influence are over,” President Obama proclaimed in a speech in Warsaw in 2014. “Bigger nations must not be allowed to bully the small or impose their will at the barrel of a gun.” Never mind Obama’s gloss over the Monroe Doctrine, the point here is that denunciations of “spheres of influence” can be found in American pronouncements on foreign policy going far back into history. In the context of Ukraine, they have been made by the last four American administrations, two of them Democrat and two Republican. This outlook is bipartisan, and it is the thing that has pulled the U.S. into a proxy war with Russia.
Several weeks before the Russian invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Beijing for the Winter Olympics. There he met with China’s leader Xi Jinping, and although we do not have the minutes of that meeting, it is a good bet that Putin told Xi that he had no choice but to go in with force. The two sides issued a joint statement, saying: “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions.” Thus, on the eve of battle, Russia and China, for their own national interests, made a last call for respecting spheres of influence. America does not talk that language.
One side is saying that world peace is served when the great powers exercise self-restraint and are respectful of other powers’ security. The other side is saying that maintaining a sphere of influence is implicitly an aggressive act. One side is saying that tension between the great powers is not the result of the particular character of their regimes, but rather is built into the international system whenever a great power veers out of its lane. The other side is saying that a regime’s character is exactly the point, because different characters affect the relations among the states in different ways. One side emphasizes historical and geographic circumstances as a constant in world affairs. The other side de-emphasizes these in favor of an overlay of law and ethical precepts.
Many Russians believe that U.S. talk about “spheres of influence,” and respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the need for a “rules-based” international order is only a moralizing cover for what the United States really wants — which is regime change in Moscow. Russia has suspected this all along. Ironically, it sees the United States pretty much as the United States sees itself: as a messianic power spreading the good news of democracy around the world. Russia knows that if it had acquiesced to Ukraine’s joining NATO, if it had been passive in allowing an opposing military alliance to push itself right up against its fence, then Russia would permanently lose its freedom of action and any claim to great power status. It would have to fit pliantly into an American-designed world order. It would have to go along with the U.S., rather than to present itself as an alternative to it. Going back to Napoleon, Russia has a history of opposing hegemonic power bidders. If it had gone along with NATO-on-the-Dneiper it would have prostrated itself to one. It would become like Europe, another American appendage.
The Russian people get this. They sense that the battle in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine. It in an existential fight, a struggle of life or death, between them and the West. To them a challenge originating in the West has once again reared up to put Russia under overwhelming pressure. They believe that losing this fight would not amount to just a setback from which Russia could later recover; it would be tantamount to Russia’s losing its historical identity, not merely as a country but as a civilization, for Russia is a civilization culturally distinct from that of the West, and not, as many Westerners mistakenly believe, an un-democratized expanse on Europe’s eastern edge.
In recent days, groups of armed insurgents have infiltrated onto Russian territory, and districts along the border with Ukraine have come under shell fire. These events have more the character of terrorism than of a conventional military operation, but they nonetheless raise the possibility that the war could spin out of control. If it does, then it could become the seventh episode in the past two centuries in which the Russian people have had to fend off Western intruders. It would be wrong to misjudge their will to resist.